While I’m not the biggest fan of Kaya Oakes (she probably hasn’t read my book, and someone suggested it to her; but then, that’s true of lots of people), she has a very prescient critique of the Benedict Option:

In fact, the Rule of Benedict itself says in Chapter 53, “On the Reception of Guests,” that monastic communities should “let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.” Dreher’s idealistic notion of Christian community life is indeed appealing, but it neglects to understand that the guests arriving right now most in need of welcome are mostly not Christians. Nor does Dreher seem to write about progressive Christian communities that are, in fact, living out their own version of the Benedict Option, although their ideas about community are perhaps more open to female leadership of LGBTQ members.

Evangelicals, who largely lean and vote conservative, might seem to be a natural audience for Dreher’s work, which may be why the editors of Christianity Today invited him to contribute a cover story. They also asked four evangelical writers to respond to Dreher’s story and the question of whether evangelicals should pursue “strategic withdrawal.” Three of these evangelicals are highly critical of the Benedict Option. David Fitch, a professor of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary, writes that evangelicals cannot “make a choice between living in Christian community or being present in our culture. We cannot, therefore, extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are.”

Oakes is right — there is a tremendous lack of hospitality to the stranger, the other, the enemy, in the Benedict Option. (Anyone needing hints for how to encounter enemies should look at the Elijah and Elisha stores.)

I am generally supportive of something akin to the Benedict Option, and I believe the American church takes its Americanness far more seriously than it does being church, and has for some time been incapable of forming real devoted disciples or offering an alternative vision of life together because of that commitment to America. Except by accident.

But I sense, from reading many of the comments on Dreher’s blog (and some of what he writes himself), that Dreher is frightened of the world, that it will take the faith of his children, and their children, and make that faith illegible or impossible. Much of what gets written in comment, about either the Benedict Option or about technology, is usually about protecting children from the corrupting influences of the world.

(Because of my work with Psalm 10 Ministries, I’ve become very aware that this desire to protect “good kids” also creates a category of “bad kids” who merit no protection, because they are irredeemable and their lives have no real value.)

In this, my fear is the Benedict Option will become another reactionary, bourgeois project.

Oakes is also right in saying that the world that comes to the church in search of welcome is non-Christian, and has been wounded — by the church, the world, modernity, and all that comes with the buying and selling of bodies and lives as mere commodities. People wounded by the false promises of self-exploitation, that their lives are theirs and theirs alone to make as they will absent any relationship with God.

My fear is that Dreher and many other religious conservatives who see and appreciate a real problem with the church and its inability to form faithful disciples are, at the same time, so afraid of the world they unwilling to encounter it without judging it and condemning it. (Again, Elijah/Elisha stories for guidance here.) They miss the role the church played in ordering and ruling the world, and won’t be the gracious presence of God in a world that, while it may not believe, on some level often understands it has sinned and fallen short and that God redeems us in and from our sin.

That said, the tolerance and hospitality of liberal Christians is frequently more for abstract categories of human beings — people who can be labeled in one way or another — than it is for actual people. Oakes’ concern is, honestly, another rigid and brittle form of bourgeois piety. It is welcoming only if you are already like the people doing the welcoming or identifiable in a way those who welcome can easily deal with. It knows less and less how to welcome people on the basis of personality, on those differences well all come with as human beings.

I have found a mixed welcome at best in liberal churches, and very poor hospitality at most. (I don’t try with conservative churches because I know I don’t belong there either.) It may be that church leaders are too overworked and risk averse, or far too ideologically oriented in their understanding of who needs to be welcomed (and who doesn’t), and that pastors and congregants are so emotionally worn out at the end (or beginning) of a week that they want comfort and ease, don’t want to have to do anything hard or be with anyone they find troubling when they show up for those 60 or 90 minutes. As our churches increasingly sort themselves out along political lines, it is likely going to be increasingly difficult for congregations and leaders to take risks welcoming strangers or real difference into their midst. Which is a terrible pity. That kind of risk is what the church exists for.

So, in this, the Benedict Option merely mirrors the rest of the church. Which is a pity, but not surprising. That Oakes’ understanding of hospitality in her essay is almost entirely limited to women leaders and queer folks is also not surprising — it’s how she understands welcoming and acceptance, and my guess it constrains that understanding. I suspect I wouldn’t be welcomed at Oakes’ church, would not receive the kind of hospitality she quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict, mostly because they wouldn’t know how, and they’d likely look at me and decide I’m not a stranger who needs or deserves hospitality.

Opting for Benedict

So this comment I made on Rod Dreher’s blog, as he took apart Rachel Held Evans’ tweet storm rant about Rod’ latest book, seems to have gotten some traction:

Progressive Christians and the Progressive Church is still wants American Christendom to work, still cannot tell the difference between state and society and church, and still very much want it to be 1962, when the church was influential and church leaders were listened to and everyone was good and bourgeois and belonged. Oh, they want a far more integrated version of 1962, complete with same-sex marriage. But their church is just as much Christendom, just as imperial, just as Constantinian, as the conservatism they decry. They want to be the chaplains to a well-ordered, relatively just (or justice oriented) state and society.

It does not help any that most progressives are trapped in a narrative of the civil rights movement that leaves them envious, guilt-ridden, self-conscious and with a sense of both deep unworthiness AND a belief the fundamental work of the civil rights movement remains unfinished. The church is the active conscience of the society, a very 19th century idea, and they are the people called upon to do that prophetic work of moving the beloved community forward. Of course progressives are going to hate the Benedict Option, because the Progressive Church exists to reform state and society, not to foster faith or form disciples.

But THAT in a nutshell is THE problem of the American church, one I have written about to much less acclaim or even notice than Dreher. The church in virtually all its forms — Progressive, conservative, orthodox, fundamentalist — demands the culture do the heavy lifting of forming disciplines, that there is no difference between citizenship and discipleship, and that the church’s job isn’t to form disciples but ensure the culture works on their behalf. That, more than anything, is going to mitigate against any kind of faithful Benedict Option in America because the church doesn’t really know how to be counter cultural, or an alternative community, for any great length of time, without aspiring to bourgeois stability and social power. That’s what’s going to be toughest for faithful followers of Jesus — the desire and expectation, almost inbuilt in the American church, that believing and belonging are virtually automatic endeavors in which church teaching and practice are mere add ons.

Nothing I haven’t said here before.

As I have watched the conversation develop around something like The Benedict Option — an idea I’ve had for a long time, given that I was Muslim for part of my life and understand what it is to belong to a religious minority that has little or not social power, and must struggle to affirm and live out both individual and collective religious identifies and confessions — I’ve developed a few concerns.

My first concern is that the those who support the Benedict Option too often ignore the story of Israel in scripture. In particular, the story that Israel is a failed polity, and that God acts to raise or redeem dead or captive Israel. Israel’s story is one of rise and fall and resurrection and redemption, and for us to appreciate our condition we need to understand our history is Israel shaped. That is, the promises God makes to the church through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon, and fulfills in and through Jesus Christ — a home of our own, a blessing to the world, many descendants, and a king on the throne for ever and ever — are realized in our failure and our powerlessness, and not our success and power.

This is, I believe, the struggle of the Hebrew Bible — what do God’s promises mean to us given that everything has seemingly come to naught? That we are a conquered and exiled people, that this is our essential condition. We may yearn for power — “Give us a king, that we may be like other people!” Israel demanded of Samuel — but we are told that power will lead to our enslavement. (And it does.) More importantly, Israel’s wealth and and power, and the things needed to maintain that wealth and power, are what undoes that state. Power and wealth undo themselves.

Our power, and our wealth, undo us. Have undone us.

The history of the church can be understood best by setting it side-by-side with the history of Israel, which rose and fell, which was divided and conquered and sent into exile. Which achieved great things with power, and promises to us were made through that power (Christendom and all its works), but that power eventually undid us. Modernity and enlightenment are Babylonians and Assyrians (I have been meaning to write in some depth about this), and they have come to carry us away.

Without the full appreciation of the story of Israel as our story, our history, our purpose, and our meaning, we cannot really make sense of what is happening to us as church.

And I don’t see a lot of this among those calling for a Benedict Option. Too much of what passes for thought in Benedict Option circles is grounded in philosophy, particularly historical church teaching with a universalist claim, a church rather angrily but impotently trying to tell the world what is true and how to live.

Second, there is a lack of a proper prophetic voice among those promoting something akin to the Benedict Option. Israel may have been overrun by Assyria and Babylon, but they were just instruments of God’s judgement upon Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry. The sin was not Assyria’s or Babylon’s, though they would pay. The sin was Israel’s.

And Israel’s sin was idolatry. The worship of other gods. Faith in its own power to save itself — its mighty men, its armies, its wealth.

While I look upon Modernity and Enlightenment as akin to Assyrians and Babylonians, they aren’t external to the church. Christendom birthed them, raised them, made them possible. Our idolatry is our surrender to Modernity and Enlightenment and their truth claims. It is likely there could be no other way — God, through Moses, pronounces blessings and curses upon Israel in the Torah, and outlines the history of success, failure, and most importantly, redemption. The appreciate the Israel shape of our history, we must also appreciate the sins we are paying for are ours, and not the world’s.

We are paying for the idolatry of our ancestors. We are paying for their faithlessness. We are paying for the things they put into motion when they believed in power, privilege, and position, when they accepted without much struggle the truth claims of modernity. (Again, as I have said before, resistance to modernity and enlightenment was and is both pointless and futile.) The sin is ours — I cannot emphasize that enough. We are not at war with a sinful world. We live under the judgment of God.

In this, we have to remember God’s last word on our sin, our idolatry, our faithlessness, is always redemption and resurrection.

Finally, there is the matter of remnants. Does God save the remnant because they are faithful or is the remnant faithful because God has saved it?

This is not a small question, because at work among the Benedict Option folks is a belief that only the truly orthodox will survive. Maybe. However, God’s stipulation for redemption from the disaster he tells Israel it will face for its faithlessness is not rigor and right faith, but sincere repentance. We don’t what of Israel’s faith and faithfulness survived Babylon, but we do know the command to the faithful wasn’t “believe rightly!” but “flee Jerusalem!” (A teaching echoed by Jesus later.) Remember, we are a people called and gathered by God, and not our faith. God is in control, and so if we are truly going into exile, we have no real idea what our descendants will inherit.

Which also reminds me — if a Benedict Option is about saving children from the pollution of the world, that vision is both too large and far too small. It fails to trust God. It fails to see where we are called to meet that sinful world and proclaim good news. And it fails to appreciate that we can only pass on what we have inherited as faithfully as possible, but we have no say about how any of that gets used.

And it will also become one more bit of bourgeois reaction that will happily reach for any club offered to keep a sinful world at bay.

We are faithful failures, we followers of Jesus. Scripture gives us lots of examples of how to live under occupation or when facing Assyrians and Babylonians. From Jonah to Elijah and Elisha to Daniel to the disciples Jesus called to follow. And that’s all we can do … follow.

Follow wherever God leads. Even into exile.

This Little Stuffed Bear is Magic

So… I’m back.

It’s been a long hiatus. My father died, and I had to go deal with that. I still have to deal with that. I have to get his car titled and registered in my name, and I couldn’t find the pink slip. I got a check from one of his annuities, one I didn’t know about from a former employer I’d communicated with and I need to deal with that.

And I got the flu. AGAIN. Not just a runny nose, sneezing, aching flu, but a delirious, fever dream flu that left me wondering which way was up and unable to sleep for four days.

That’s the second time this year I’ve had THAT flu. So much for the flu shot.

And then … I got bitten by one of the spiders that infests our basement apartment. And that made me sick too.

I thought when I’d come back, maybe I’d have something pithy to say about the Trump Regime or about Leviticus. Or something lenten to say, about journeys of sacrifice, about the long and faithful walk to that place where we will die. Healing and teaching and raising the dead as we go.


I want you to meet Charlotte.


Charlotte in March of 2017.

Charlotte is a stuffed bear. A little white stuffed bear with a pink nose and a red bow tie. A gift to Jennifer from my mother the first Christmas we were together, back in 1988. I think my mom bought the bear at a Hallmark, her very first gift to the young woman I brought home for December.

My dad was weird about having my girlfriend stay. I didn’t understand that then, but almost 30 years later, with foster daughters who have boyfriends, I understand that weirdness now.

Anyway … nearly 30 years. That is how long Charlotte has been with us.

Jennifer named the bear after me, though being clueless, I didn’t realize that fact until she explained it to me years later. She snuggled that bear when I wasn’t around, to feel safe, to remind herself of me. She kept that bear, in her dorm room at SF State, the semester she lived at home with her parents, and then all the years we were together.

And then, in 1995, as I was getting ready to go work in Dubai, I looked at Jennifer and said: “I need something to remind me of you. Can I take Charlotte with me?” It worked because Jennifer had something else to hold, a stuffed gorilla.

So, Charlotte went with me to Dubai. To Jeddah. Once, in Dubai, I found one of Jennifer’s long blond hairs on Charlotte. And I cried. Mostly, Jennifer hair is an annoyance, but this time, it was a reminder that I missed her, and that she was so far away.

In Jeddah, I remember waking up to a BBC news report about an attack on a compound in Riyadh, a compound much like the one I lived in, and crying. “I don’t want to die here,” I said, clutching this little stuffed bear tight.

Of course, we  mostly don’t get to decide when and where we die.


Charlotte on my bed in villa #35, Al Salaam Compound, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, late 2003. You’ll just have to trust me on that.

She has been around the world, this little stuffed bear, in my backpack, and not merely in my luggage in the belly of a 747. I used her to mark my seat during a short layover in Tokyo when I left the plane to drink the most expensive beer I’ve ever bought (Japanese airport beer, which is an official brand name, if you must know) and almost didn’t make it back to the flight on time.

She’s magic, this little bear. Infused with love. That’s what Jennifer says.

So, last summer, after Kaylie Mendoza had been staying with us, but needed to move on to another transitional living arrangement, she asked if she could keep Charlotte. She’d already been sleeping with Charlotte, holding her close, taking comfort in holding this little bear tight.

But Charlotte’s adventure didn’t really begin until Kaylie took her to the halfway house in Spokane where she’s lived since last September.

Charlotte was stolen. Not once, not twice, but over and over and over again. Held hostage a time or two. “No one ever gave me stuffed bear,” one of Kaylie’s housemates rather jealously said to me as I was trying to convince her to give Charlotte back.

Kids took Charlotte. Clutched her. Held her. Cried when she was taken away. Again and again. One little girl who’d spend more than a month living outdoors made a fort of blankets in Kaylie’s closet and wouldn’t let go of Charlotte. At one point, when it looked like Charlotte was gone for good, I had to tell a scared and guilt-ridden Kaylie it was okay, that whoever had that little stuffed bear probably really needed her and if we never saw her again, it was okay.

I was sad about that. I don’t have many things as old as Charlotte. But I also meant that, too. Whoever had her … needed her.

Charlotte got covered with mud. Chocolate. Spaghetti sauce. Her bowtie came loose and had to be sewn back on. Her fur has worn thin in places.

I have her now. I washed her. She’s almost 30 years old, isn’t very white anymore, and the pink fuzz has worn off her nose. Her eyes aren’t shiny black anymore and have scratches. I will give her back to Kaylie today as she moves in to a new communal living and learning situation. And I wonder … what new adventures await this this stupid stuffed bear? Who will see the magic, the love, know that Charlotte is probably the best protector in the world (she fended off al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia!), and want to hold her, to fell and be protected and loved?

It’s a dumb thing to wonder about … a thing. Made in a factory somewhere in Asia or Mexico by underpaid and maybe abused workers who probably produced several thousand of them in an afternoon. She’s just fabric and stuffing. And nothing more.

Except … she’s love. And safety. And protection.

And people seem to know. Kids just …

They just seem to know.